As thoroughly as Konami tried to scrub it from existence, PT lingers like crime scene evidence mopped up with kleenex. The way it evokes a constant sense of danger in an innocuous setting has already bled into the horror genre as a whole – it’s intriguing to see games like Layers of Fear build unnatural, ever-changing worlds around a unique kernel of fear, the way PT wraps it’s infamously horrifying hallway around that thing in the sink (you know the one I mean) and leaves it for you to find.
But sadly, not every scary-door-simulator hits that impressive mark. Case in point, The Park. A new first-person horror title with a fascinating, deeply uncomfortable premise as its backbone, it ultimately disappoints by making one seriously wrong turn: in trying to nail that PT vibe, it actually runs away from the kernel of fear that made it interesting in the first place.
WARNING: Copious spoilers for The Park ahead.
The Park follows struggling mother Lorraine as she frantically searches for her lost son Callum, who has disappeared in the eerie and definitely haunted Atlantic Island Amusement Park. That’s already a promising concept (Lakeside Amusement Park: The Game? Take my whole wallet), but it gets even more interesting when you realize that Lorraine might not actually want to find her son.
Distraught at the death of her fiance and bitter over the parenthood role she’s been forced to take on alone, Lorraine is deeply conflicted in her feelings toward Callum; over the course of the game’s two-hour run, she describes him as the Hansel to her Gretel, her beloved child, and a “little life sucking monster” who deserves to be abandoned. She didn’t want to be a mother (at least not without his father), and being one hasn’t changed her mind.
In a society that reveres the maternal instinct as much as ours does, that’s a really uncomfortable notion. Especially when it leads, as The Park does, to the possibility that Callum isn’t lost at all. As Lorraine rapidly descends into paranoia, her accusations against her son take a demonic turn: “Something sinister lurks in the darkness behind [Callum’s] eyes…They are whispering to him in his sleep, changing him.” It’s as if she’s trying to convince herself that her Callum isn’t an innocent child at all, but a creature that will need to be dealt with, and she claims she’ll “save” him no matter the pain it will inevitably cause. It all points in a uniquely chilling direction: Lorraine herself hurt or left him at the park on purpose. Now – as she claims in the game’s opening line – she keeps returning to the Atlantic Island Park in her mind, so she can change the story of what really happened to justify what she did.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that The Park isn’t entirely confident in it’s own abilities, and that brilliant kernel gets buried. Lorraine’s story is frequently interrupted by references to developer Funcom’s most famous title, The Secret World, which are confusing at best and needlessly distracting at worst – the idea that the land really does exude some sort of corrupting energy in particular undercuts some of the most interesting pieces of The Park, for instance.
Then about halfway through, the game throws all its weight behind a PT-style hallway romp (complete with multiple trips through a single, rapidly deteriorating environment) where creepy dolls and disturbing children’s drawings are scattered in underwhelming fashion, like someone forgot to put out Halloween decorations until the last minute. Lorraine’s terrifying story falls by the wayside, replaced by generically ‘creepy’ imagery.
It a way, The Park is attempting to mimic what PT created with its own familiar frights – creaking doors, ghostly murmuring, eyeballs rolling inside every single painting in the house. The difference is that all of those terrors play into the main character’s madness, driving toward discovery of the ultimate, horrifying act that put them where they are now. The Park, on the other hand, uses those scares to deflect attention away from its central story. Ultimately, it hedges its bets to its own detriment: rather than giving Lorraine’s story room to breathe and develop, it piles on distractions out of fear that its premise isn’t strong enough to keep the player’s attention. The result is a mediocre title that could have been great.
The Park has a lot of interesting ideas, so I’m hopeful that Funcom can make a fascinating horror game without those same hang-ups sometime in the future. But before it does, there’s one more lesson the whole project can learn from PT: when you create a game, show no fear. That’s the players’ job.